If We Had a Real Leader

Imagining Covid under a normal president.

This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.

If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.

In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.

If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.

Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.

In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.

If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.

After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.

Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.

But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.

All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”

Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.

One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.

Jerry Falwell Jr.’s coronavirus response shows his staggering level of ignorance

After learning of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s decision to partially reopen Liberty University, my thoughts turned to the biblical account of Balaam’s ass.

According to the Hebrew scriptures, the children of Israel were on the verge of engulfing another Bronze Age tribe. Lacking recourse to the United Nations, the Moabites turned to a diviner named Balaam to curse the Israelis. But on the way to the cursing, Balaam’s conveyance, an ass, saw an angel blocking the path ahead, turned hard into a wall and crushed Balaam’s foot. Unable to see the celestial creature himself, a frustrated Balaam beat his ass. But God permitted the wounded animal to speak, mock her rider and explain the divine roadblock. The eyes of a chastened Balaam were finally opened and he took the Israeli side. And the rest is Middle East history.

Students at Liberty University are more likely than most to understand the specialness of this biblical lesson. It is one of the few stories in which Falwell should not be assigned the part of an ass. For that matter, he does not even deserve the role of Balaam, who at least was open to instruction. Instead, Falwell has charged the angel straight on and — in defiance of nearly all public health experts — reopened the Liberty dorms in the middle of a pandemic. Now, according to the New York Times, at least one student has tested positive and several more have shown coronavirus-like symptoms.

Falwell played down the risk to students who might get the disease. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk,” he argued last week, “and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”

But this public response indicates the staggering level of ignorance that informs Falwell’s leadership. It is possible for students with mild or unnoticeable symptoms to spread the disease. And once cases are discovered, it is generally too late to take preventive action. Yes, the fatality rate of infected college students is likely to be low. Yet places with broad community spread are more likely to see infection of the elderly and vulnerable, who are more likely to fill premature graves. Since when has Liberty University embraced the teaching of Social Darwinism in Ethics 101?

What can’t be disputed is the constant churn of mixed messages that Falwell has contributed to our national debate. His stated intention has been to concentrate Liberty’s student population: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together.”

It can’t be disputed that Falwell personally welcomed hundreds of students back to campus after Spring Break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he recalled. “I was joking how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and I told them to enjoy it.”

It can’t be disputed that Falwell has called the national pandemic response an “overreaction” with political motivations. “Impeachment didn’t work,” he claimed, “and the Mueller report didn’t work and Article 25 didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”

It can’t be disputed that Falwell went on Fox News and speculated that the coronavirus might have been the work of the North Korean military.

It can’t be disputed that Falwell called one critic a “dummy,” even though he is the parent of Liberty students. Or that Falwell has dismissed a critical professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett as “the ‘Baggett’ lady.’ ”

There is an old Bob Dylan song titled, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Who is Falwell serving instead of students, parents, staff, his board and the Lynchburg, Va., community? Let’s see.

  • Falwell has contempt for the weak. He is
  • dismissive of experts. H
  • traffics in conspiracy theories. He
  • attacks his critics with infantile putdowns and demeaning names. And he
  • refuses to admit when he is dangerously wrong.

Who does that sound like? It is on the tip of my tongue.

In this case Falwell has gone even further than the president, who is occasionally forced, under duress, to say sane things about the virus. Falwell seems to want credit from President Trump for drinking the most distilled, concentrated, rotgut form of the Kool-Aid.

He blunders toward blasphemy by insisting that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs. “We’re conservative,” he claims, “we’re Christian, and therefore we’re being attacked.” But any path that ignores the truth and endangers the vulnerable can’t be called the way of Christ. No, there is only one explanation: Falwell has laid down the cross to follow Trump.

“Jeffersonian America”

John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours: U.S. History Survey Edition – Episode 18

Transcript

00:03
welcome history 141 students John Filion
00:06
here for the virtual office hours this
00:09
is your weekly update on lectures and
00:13
all things u.s. survey to 1865 our
00:17
trusted producer megan p.m. is here with
00:21
us as usual by the way if you haven’t
00:24
watched all of episode 17 go to the end
00:27
and you’ll see Megan and her Napoleon
00:31
costume for Halloween I think I even put
00:34
that on the blog too if someone can
00:36
follow the way of improvement leto but
00:39
today we’re coming up on an exam so I
00:42
want to do one more office hour just to
00:43
cover the last two lectures in class
00:47
where we’ve been talking about
00:48
Jeffersonian America and one of the
00:52
things are several things that I want
00:55
you to think about as we think about our
00:57
man here Thomas Jefferson I’m going to
01:00
be playing around with these Pez
01:02
dispensers a little bit today remember
01:05
Jefferson really sees his election in
01:08
1800 as it almost a second revolution
01:11
the revolution of 1800 he disagrees with
01:15
many of the policies of the Federalists
01:19
presidents and go back and look at my
01:21
fabulous one versus fabulous two bonus
01:24
track that we did last week just to make
01:27
sure you know what I’m talking about
01:28
when I refer to these Federalists but
01:30
here they are Washington and John Adams
01:32
we don’t have Alexander Hamilton because
01:34
he wasn’t a president intends doesn’t
01:35
make that Alexander Hamilton dispenser
01:39
although if anyone out there finds an
01:40
Alexander Hamilton dispenser or any
01:43
other founders for that matter send him
01:45
along and we’ll add him to the group but
01:47
obviously Jefferson does not like the
01:49
way in which the 1790s went and he is
01:53
really sees his presidency as a sort of
01:56
new birth of Liberty we’re at the
01:57
Enlightenment Liberty moving forward you
02:00
know going against the tyranny of the
02:02
Federalists right that George George the
02:05
third it’s not George the third this
02:07
time is George Washington
02:09
and the whiskey rebellion and their
02:10
vision for America of course Jefferson’s
02:12
vision much more area much more
02:15
spreading out via land much more
02:17
concerned about the common farmer so
02:20
he’s elected in 1800 and we spent some
02:22
time talking about his administration we
02:25
talked about his first term in which the
02:27
Louisiana territory Lisa Hanna purchase
02:30
is really the pinnacle of that first
02:32
term when you think about the Louisiana
02:35
territory don’t just think about it as a
02:36
huge land mass right that’s certainly
02:39
the basic stuff that you need to know
02:41
but think about the meaning of that
02:43
think about the political meaning of it
02:46
right Jefferson is wants to spread the
02:49
country westward he wants to establish
02:53
in many ways places in the west where
02:56
more and more common people are going to
02:58
go and get access to land land equals
03:01
independence land equals the American
03:03
dream so it’s the purchase of Louisiana
03:07
fits very well into his political vision
03:10
for the country and of course the
03:12
Federalists don’t like this at all
03:14
because they’re worried that well what
03:16
are you gonna do you’re gonna
03:17
Jefferson’s going to establish all these
03:19
new states out in Louisiana they’re
03:21
going to be you know they’re not going
03:23
to like the Federalists in these new
03:25
states and we’re going to basically you
03:26
know disappear from the face of the
03:28
political landscape and of course that’s
03:30
pretty much what happens so the
03:32
Federalists are very much aware this is
03:34
this is in the works also realize the
03:38
constitutional debates over over the
03:41
Louisiana Purchase and I think I made a
03:43
quick comment in class that here in
03:45
these very early years and it’s always
03:47
it’s not much like we have it today
people use the Constitution interpret
the Constitution either loosely or
strictly to basically get what they want
out of the Constitution and Jefferson
clearly is doing this when he when he
takes a very loose interpretation of the
of the Constitution saying i think the
Constitution doesn’t forbid me from
buying this territory as a president so
I can do it
04:14
so you have the Louisiana territory talk
04:16
a little bit about Lewis and Clark some
04:19
of the things associated with their
04:20
mission a mission force both scientific
04:23
exploration and the declaration of
04:25
political power or sovereignty one is
04:28
fairly successful to scientific the
04:30
political announcement to these Indian
04:33
tribes that America now owns this land
04:35
and that one doesn’t go go as well as
04:37
Jefferson would like but go back and
04:40
look at you know some of the things we
04:41
said about that expedition we talked a
04:43
little bit about Sacagawea and the way
04:46
she’s been portrayed in American culture
04:49
the second term for Jefferson not so
04:52
good foreign policy problems he finds
04:56
himself again in a situation in which
04:58
the europe is not respecting the neutral
05:03
rights of the Americans Britain
05:06
especially as impressing American ships
05:09
and I think to Jefferson’s credit and
05:12
again we can debate this but I don’t
05:15
want you to perceive Jefferson to sort
05:16
of be a wimp on this I tend to see him
05:20
more is trying to come up with a
05:22
peaceful solution to stop the
05:24
impressment of ship so the United States
05:26
doesn’t have to go to war unfortunately
05:28
the result is the embargo act of 1807
05:30
which becomes another disaster for the
05:33
United States and especially hurts the
05:35
common people in the common farmers who
05:37
tend to vote for Jefferson so understand
05:40
why the Embargo Act fails understands
05:43
jeffers this is Jefferson’s major
05:45
attempt to to deal with these problems
05:48
of impressment in the seas and
05:52
especially in and around the Caribbean
05:53
and the West Indies so by the time
05:56
Jefferson leaves office remember when I
05:58
said he doesn’t even list the presidency
06:01
as one of his major accomplishments on
06:03
his tombstone he says I wrote the
06:06
Declaration of Independence I founded
06:07
the University of Virginia I wrote the
06:09
Virginia statute of liberty licious
06:11
Liberty but he never quite saw his
06:12
presidency as one of his great achieve
06:15
greatest achievements i should say in
06:16
life so Jefferson successor where is he
06:21
here James Madison he comes on the scene
06:24
in 18
06:25
1808 he had 1809 he has to basically
06:30
deal with all the problems that
06:31
Jefferson left him and really now has to
06:35
deal with this what you know this kind
06:37
of perfect storm leading to war one you
06:41
had these young congressman Calhoun
06:44
Webster clay the Warhawks who are saying
06:49
enough of this we need to assert
06:50
ourselves we need to go to war with
06:52
Britain until they stop a crema and
06:54
pressing our ships and until they start
06:57
respecting our neutral rights you have
07:00
to come sit and the Prophet incident out
07:02
on the frontier where there’s rumors
07:05
that to come say is actually working for
07:07
the British and then you have of course
07:09
the third the impressment of British
07:11
ships this storm this threefold stole
07:14
these three storms sort of coming
07:16
together leads the United States into
07:18
war and after the exam are actually on
07:21
Friday we’ll talk a little bit more this
07:24
week will actually talk a little bit
07:25
more about the consequences and the
07:28
implications of the war of 1812 and how
07:30
that shapes what’s going to what’s going
07:32
to happen in the future so hopefully
07:36
you’ll do well in the exam go go look at
07:40
your notes about the office hours and so
07:42
forth you know prepare well and if you I
07:47
always say this if you don’t believe in
07:51
luck i should say good luck and if you
07:53
don’t believe in luck may God
07:54
providentially give you the grades you
07:56
deserve this exam and i will see you on
07:59
Monday

What the Bible says about homosexuality | Kristin Saylor & Jim O’Hanlon | TEDxEdgemontSchool

Kristin Saylor and Jim O’Hanlon talks about what the Bible really says about homosexuality and other LGBTQ topics.

The Rev. Kristin Saylor is an Episcopal priest, currently serving St. Peter’s Church in Port Chester, NY. Originally from Wisconsin, she is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Virginia Theological Seminary. She and her husband reside in the Bronx and enjoy availing themselves of New York City’s many cultural and culinary delights.

Jim O’Hanlon has been a Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 2000, of St. Paul’s Church in Rye Brook since 2010.

Raised in a large, Irish, Roman Catholic family, Jim has a keen interest in the liturgical, social and church reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Jim joined the the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America because of its witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the inclusion of women, Gays and Lesbians and all people in full participation and leadership in the church.

After college he earned a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and subsequently a Master of Sacred Theology from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He completed several graduate courses in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He serves on various boards including the Port Chester Council of Community Services and the LGBT Advisory Council for the County Executive. He enjoys collaborating with colle